The geopolitics of Latin American forign debt


Despite its importance, consideration of foreign debt over the last few years has been diffuse and blurred. Whereas in the 1980s foreign debt was the focus of argument, twenty years later it appears as a marginal issue, as much in discussion of public policy on the development financing of alternatives to the current model as in critical theory.

The relevance of stabilization policies are not even discussed in the region. Argentina and Brazil may have cleared their debt with the IMF but at the same time their governments remain faithful to prescriptions for stabilization. Even ECLAC (1), formerly critical of power and a source of inspiration as much for critical theory as for the adoption of public policies of endogenous growth and income redistribution has now joined the single ideology chorus.

Despite that, the issue of debt in current circumstances may be perhaps even more strategically important than in the 1980s when the debt crisis broke and the programmes of adjustment and stabilization began.

In effect, reflections on debt have prioritized financial and also macroeconomic aspects in relation to development finance, without seeing debt as the trigger for radical changes in the structur e of the State and, now, in the negotiations and concessions relating to territorial sovereignty inherent in free trade agreements. In the same way that debt management worked as the master key to disengage projects of industrialization via a regulatory State, now it works through strategic plans like IIRSA (2) and Plan Puebla Panama to give coherence and consistency to free trade agreements linking structural reforms to megaprojects involving intensive exploitation of natural resources and labour.

Operators of neoliberal reforms of the same type and vast, deep reach as the IMF and the World Bank, like the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), Fonplata and the Inter-American Development Bank have disappeared from sight. In fact, in reflections on debt neither the CAF nor Fonplata appear as political agents of neoliberal reform. The case of the reforms to the internal statutes of the CAF incorporating countries like the US and Brazil as class A investors, a fact of vital importance for the region because it implies de facto concession of territoriality and resources to corporations through the presence of the CAF as an IIRSA funder, has gone unnoticed in the theoretical debate. The consequences of the fact that private US banks can now finance the more than 300 IIRSA projects have not been analysed.

Nor has an analytical link been developed between the new process of multilateral indebtedness via the IADB and the CAF and the free trade agreements the US is imposing in the region. A closer look at recent processes shows there is something more than coincidence in the siting of US military bases in the wealthiest areas of biodiversity, along with projects of either IIRSA or Plan Puebla Panama and mulitlateral funding. From that point of view, the separatist declarations of elites in Zulia, Guayaquil or Tarija and Santa Cruz, are more significant and may be related to this new modality of negotiating state sovereignty. All of this without doubt offers a more dense and complicated panorama of the burden of debt payment for any country than merely viewing debt as an accounting aspect of development funding.

And so to understand these new dynamics of foreign indebtedness and consider foreign debt as “an agent of political transformation” linking free trade agreements with the demands of corporations, one has to escape from the financial and macroeconomic focus on debt and look at it as basically a political problem.. Foreign debt is essentially a political problem working as a device to make radical changes in the State and in society and which now accommodates its formats and institutional frameworks to the requirements of capitalism.

Once the region has internalized the argument for stabilization as an argument of its own and in which critical voices have been extinguished, to the extreme that the whole of political economy has turned into variations on the theme of stabilization. Once the structural reform of the State has been consolidated and societies have been disciplined thanks to that reform’s transversal axes like the fight against poverty, local participation, anti-corruption drives and decentralization, in such a way that even critical voices end up using the same conceptual schemes as the World Bank, like the dollar a day concept to define poverty. At that point, power needs to move into a deeper phase, namely the dismantling of the territorial sovereignty of States, because sovereignty dictates the use, ownership and management of natural resources.

So then it is necessary to render incoherent the vestiges of sovereignty that States may have over their natural resources and even over their populations. The free trade agreements the US is imposing in the region  are meant to break up sovereignty. In effect the free trade agreements thanks to their single format, which almost by definition blocks any negotiating strategy, break up territorial sovereignty and open up territory for the operation of corporations and financial capital.

The free trade agreements are the terminus of the structural reforms. They are also meant to be points of no return, to be final, absolute strategies. And the mechanism that permits a direct convergence between corporations and financial capital with control, management, operation and ownership of territorial sovereignty and of natural resources is, precisely, foreign debt.

It is from this point of view that I propose a political reading of foreign debt in the region in which one can identify three main processes or stages, complementary one to the other but different in the function of the dynamic that orders them:

a) A financial stage in which world financial architecture is redesigned and in which international corporate finance consolidates and expands as a fundamental actor in financial globalization. This financial stage is typified by the imposition of structural adjustment programmes and macroeconomic stabilization programmes. This began with Mexico’s debt crisis in 1982 and continues to the present. The principal organization in this stage is the IMF and the legitimating theoretical model for the transfers of resources to the capitalist centre is monetarism, whose concrete expression in order to guarantee debt payments and articulate structural adjustment programmes is a monetary focus on the balance of payments. During this stage, debtor countries design public policy around paying the debt  and become net exporters of capital. The way these public policies are imposed in the economic field is via Letters of Intent agreed with the IMF.

b) A second stage, that began in 1985 during the joint meeting of the World Bank and the IMF  in South Korea, is characterized by a series of credits from the World Bank aimed at projects to reform the legal and institutional structure of the State. From the time James Baker in 1985, then US Treasury Secretary, defined the new role of the World Bank in economic adjustment until the publication in 1989 of (John) Williamson’s Washington Consensus a period existed in which conditionalities of the IMF and the World Bank were juxtaposed so as at times to contradict each other as regards the time and speed of the structural reform.

The beginning of the 1990s clarified the roles of the IMF and the World Bank, so the latter focused on structural reform of the State; that is, on carrying out a series of projects whose main aim is to privatize State functions. So this stage can be defined as one of structural reform and institutional reform of the State. The basic axes are privatization, liberalization of markets, labour flexibility, public spending cutbacks and structural changes in the make-up of the State and the definition of public policy. The theoretical framework that legitimizes and offers some rationality to the strategies put forward in this stage consists of political and economic variants on neo-institutionalism.

During this phase, the new indebtedness focuses on programmes and projects of social control and institutional transformation of the State. To give normative and analytical coherence to these changes, the World Bank uses the so called Country Assistance Strategies, equivalent to the IMF’s Letters of Intent. The legitimising discourse is the fight against poverty, and the construction of poverty as an economic phenomenon dependent on economic growth. For its part, growth is conceived by the World Bank as a task and responsibility exclusively of the private sector.

c) A third stage, concomitant with the structural reform of the State, is related to the “strategic plans” that define megaprojects for the intensive exploitation of natural resources and the labour force, as  is the case with Cana Brava in Brazil, Camisea in Peru, or Yacyreta in Argentina and Paraguay, among others (6). These megaprojects have been integrated into two grand initiatives covering the whole of Latin America – Plan Puebla Panama originating in the Tuxtla agreements of 1991 and the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative created in the presidential summit in Brazil of 2000. This stage incorporates the creation of strategic plans which integrate structural reform policies with the need to extract resources and create a physical base from which mulitnational corporations can expand their operations and control strategic resources like energy, water and biodiversity.

The stage can be described as strategic from the presence of these megaprojects which privatize natural resources and create vast areas of intensive exploitation. This stage complements new indebtedness with private investment and with the creation of regional markets guaranteed by free trade agreements between various countries in the region and the United States. The key institutions for this stage are the IADB, the CAF and Fonplata. No comprehensive theoretical framework exists in the same way as one did for the previous stages, but rather ad hoc theoretical proposals for new situations within the general epistemological framework of classical liberalism. In that sense, the most important theoretical creation for this new stage are the schemes of payments for environmental services.

So adjustment and structural reform of the State are global processes that define the geopolitics of power and the pre-eminence of financial capital. The strategic plans are regional manoeuvres carried out to ensure the control, domination, ownership and use of strategic natural resources and abundant availability of labour. Both Plan Puebla Panama and IIRSA should be seen within the geostrategic world conflict for control of key areas. The frontier that defines control of strategic resources runs through points of armed conflict, like the area of coltan (7) in the Congo or the war for oil in Iraq (both wars treated in the news media as “civil wars”). And thus the US military bases in the case of Plan Puebla Panama and IIRSA border the areas wealthiest in resources, the Andean Choco, the Guarani aquifers and the Amazon basin.

To guarantee control and access to these areas, the US has tried to form a regional market in which US corporations would have privileged and unrestricted access to these resources with legal security and property rights via the Free Trade Area of the Americas. After the FTAA’s failure the US has carried forward a bilateral strategy of free trade agreements with various countries in the region with the same components as the FTAA. The US has negotiated and in some cases signed free trade agreements with the Central American countries, with Mexico and Canada, with Colombia and Peru, with Chile, and is in the process of negotations with Uruguay, Paraguay and Ecuador.

So Latin America, as it has been since the Monroe Doctrine of the 19th Century, is the object of hegemonic control by the US which has oscillated between open and covert intervention and direct hostility towards governments that separate from or try to separate from that hegemonic control. Therefore, the region’s economic, political, social and legal phenomena have to be understood  within the geopolitical matrix of neocolonialism, interventionism and US domination.

And that means foreign debt has to be understood as a geopolitical phenomenon whereby the adoption of measures in one region necessarily affects the metropolis. If in the 1980s, when the debt crisis began, Latin American countries with high indebtedness like Mexico, Brazil and Argentina had acted toegther and established joint negotiating political priorities, the world order would have been significantly changed.
For that reason, one of the concerns of US administrations has been precisely to avoid coordinated, convergent action by Latin American countries on the problem of foreign debt. The US assumed as a priority the task of avoiding the formation of a debtors’ syndicate and as a secondary task to secure and protect its internal financial system by transferring the costs of excess credit and lack of financial regulation to the region’s countries via policies of structural adjustment.

There is a relation between the debt crisis and the expansion of the US economy. Perhaps the most dramatic example is from the 1990s which ECLAC calls the new lost decade while for the US it was, by contrast, the “happy ‘Nineties”, to use the phrase of the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz. The US had unprecedented growth while Latin America in the same period had serious problems overcoming the economic crisis caused by foreign debt and structural adjustment policies.

Not only that, but also in the measure to which the US transferred the costs of its own crisis to Latin American countries, they used the debt problem as an opportunity permitting them greater geopolitical control in the region. It is by virtue of these circumstances that one ought to consider debt as basically a geopolitical phenomenon. The financial details of the debt, despite their overwhelming importance for the continent’s peoples, are secondary to the neocolonial strategy which is in truth inherent in foreign debt.

Scarcely had the 1982 debt crisis begun than the US reworked world financial arrangements and used the IMF to advance its own interests. During the debt crisis the IMF played a fundamental role, while during the crisis of August 1971, when President Richard Nixon decreed the inconvertibility of gold, it was shown to be powerless to protect the Bretton Woods system. It is the IMF whose macroeconomic stabilization policies have been the master key undoing regional strategies of industrialization and of the welfare State.

Thanks to the IMF the region went from prioritizing employment and growth to controlling inflation as the main aim of political economy. In that way the transition was made from policies of industrialization to policies of stabilization. From the priorities of an industrializing bourgeoisie to the needs of a financial and speculative bourgeoisie. After three decades of stabilization and structural reform and adjustment, the number of households in poverty has risen dramatically and unequal income distribution has become established.

The political crises in the region have corresponded to that adjustment. Social fragmentation and conflict have fed on the dynamics of adjustment and macroeconomic stabilization imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. Stable economies in reality mean under-resourced public spending for health, education and social services, insecure employment, growing unemployment, migration, poverty and inequality. But they also mean huge profits for financial capital and enormous net capital transfers. The adjustment policies of the IMF were a kind of artillery and aerial bombardment on the positions of a State that intervened directly in social regulation and the assignment of resources to promote growth, income distribution and employment creation.
Once those State strategies were disarmed by adjustment and stabilization policies. it was time for the World Bank infantry to come in, who, following the structural reform projects, implacably wrecked the institutional frameworks that one way or another still survived and which proposed a State responsible for distributing income and creating employment via public policy. When it was seen that the task of the World Bank of destroying the welfare State was in its final phase, strategic plans like Plan Puebla Panama and IIRSA came in to occupy the defeated, overthrown territory.

This warlike metaphor is more than just a rhetorical device, if one remembers that the French philospher Michel Foucault may well have been right when he inverted the maxim of Clausewitz. For Foucault, war is not the continuation of politics by others means, but rather the reverse. Politics is the continuation of war  because war and violence are the constant norm. In complete contradiction to  Kant’s Enlightenment project of perpetual peace, what really exists is a state of permanent war.

The adjustment and structrual reform policies of the IMF and the World Bank and now the strategic plans of the IADB and the CAF are part of this perpetual war. A war whose purpose is conquest, territorial control, domination and pillage, as in any war. One is not exaggerating. Remember that the US after invading and conquering Iraq proposed condoning Iraq’s foreign debt and in fact did forgive a large part of the foreign debt while it militarily occupied the country and took over its oil resources. Iraq’s foreign debt was used as a wartime argument so it is no exaggeration to think that the geopolitics of debt might also be a military strategy.

Once, reading the Lugano Report by Susan George, I thought she may possibly have exaggerated. The world she proposed, in a very interesting exposition, seemed to me too violent to be plausible. But reality always defeats the imagination. Now, I think George came up short. That violence, that cynicism, those designs of violence and domination of the Lugano Report are more than plausible. They are absolutely real.

If Plan Puebla Panama and IIRSA finally get implemented hundreds of indigenous peoples who live in the areas of intervention will have their days numberewd. Rural workers families days will also be numbered. The tropical forest that still exists will disappear and in their place will be either desert or monocultivation of genetically manipulated crops. The Guarani aquifers will be used up in short order. After timber operations, only vestiges will remain of the Andean Choco. The multi-node corridors will not only devastate nature but also produce more insecurity and more poverty. IIRSA and Plan Puebla Panama are barely the tip of the veil covering the face of the Medusa.

Translated from Spanish into English by toni solo, a member of Tlaxcala (www.tlaxcala.es), the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation is Copyleft.

Translator’s notes

1. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (www.eclac.cl)

2. South American Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative (www.iirsa.org)

3. Corporacion Andino de Fomento (www.caf.com)

4. FONPLATA – Fondo Financiero para el Desarrollo de la cuenca del Plata (www.fonplata.org)

5. Zulia is an oil rich department of Venezuela adjoining Colombia. Guayaquil is the most important commercial city and port in Ecuador, capital of the Guayas province. Tarija and Santa Cruz are resource rich departments of Bolivia.

6.Caña Brava is a big hydroelectric project in northern Brazil run by the Belgian multinational Tractabel with funding from the IADB.
Camisea is a huge gas field which the Peruvian government is developing through concessions to Repsol, the Spanish multinational.
Yacyreyta is a large dam project on the river Parana between Argentina and Paraguay.

7.Columbite-tantalite (coltan) is a rare mineral used in high technology like ballistic missiles and space vehicles.

8. Susan George “The Lugano Report : On Preserving Capitalism in the 21st Century” Pluto Press, London, November 2003 (New Edition) ISBN 0 7453 2206 9

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